On The Ground at The San Sebastian Surfilmfestibal with Jed Smith

Jed Smith

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Updated 2773d ago

It is the dead honest self-examination that surfing so desperately needs. The San Sebastian Surffilmfestibal, now in its 13th year, has distinguished itself as the most important surf culture celebration on the planet.

Born out of the independent vision of founder, Basque surfer, early 1990s Mentawaian surf adventurer, and renowned culture buff, Sancho Rodriguez, the festibal is today akin to the Cannes of the surfing world. This year is no exception. Boasting a typically eclectic programme of art exhibitions, film screenings, environmental conservation talks, bands, and underground ocean legends (Kohl Christensen and Ramon Navarro among them), the festival is a rare beacon of honesty and oddball surf culture in an increasingly commercialised world.

Scroll down for the definitive guide to ideas, exhibits, and minds at this year's edition.

Films: Critic's Choice

Held in the triumphant surroundings of San Sebastian's 1920s-era Teatro Principal, the surfilmfestibal's film selections were as bizarre and compelling as you'd expect. Here are the top five.

Nic Nix Nooley, by Toby Cregan

The freshest in surfing mixed with classic Australian pulp-stoner-surf-humuor is what made Nic 'Nix' Nooley the hit of the festival. Directed by young punk-surf-filmmaker and musician, Toby Cregan, the film follows modern day style-masters Creed Mctaggart and Beau Foster, along with trick-fiend, Duncan Mcnicol, as they travel back in time to get the session (the oceans of the future having been rendered unshreddable by pollution and global warming). Equal parts epic action and old fashioned pisstake, with a hard Aussie rock soundtrack to boot, Nic Nix Nooley is a classic piece of surf cinema.

Rating: Five Stars.

El Ciruelo Por Europa, by Mario Azurza

The surprise packet of the festival. Mario Azurza is a renowned Basque surfer from Zarautz whose enjoyed some competitive success, but it's his observational eye, electric personality and smooth music selections that made this one of best films on show. A journey through the mostly wave-less Mediterranean allows the filmmaker to flex his comic muscle while also giving us a quirky snap shot of contemporary European and Basque surf culture.

Rating: Four stars

Viejo Perro, by Rodrigo Farias

From its hippie-freak roots, through the torment of the CIA-led Pinochet coup, and into the present, this is the definitive history of Chilean surfing, courtesy of Chilean filmmaker, Rodrigo Farias. Viejo Perro follows a heartfelt journey to honour one of the now deceased Chilean surf pioneers. Along the pilgrimage we are taken on a trip through the ages of Chilean surfing. Along the way we are introduced us to a host of characters every bit as controversial and compelling as the Miki Doras, Nat Youngs and Bob Mctavishes of America and Australia. None moreso than the surfing pioneer, controversial party boy and former owner of the original Chileno discotheque, El Trauco. An informative, classically-styled documentary, with a rewarding crescendo, Viejo Perro gives an enlightening look at the little known surf culture of Chile.

Rating: Four stars

Loading, by Ibon Antunano

An exhilarating, adrenaline pumping big wave barrel fest hot off the press from the recent Puerto Escondido mega-swell. If traditional surfing is the sport of kings, this was the stuff of gods. Crafted together with just enough of an eye toward narrative energy, the film features jaw dropping cameos from Grant 'Twiggy' Baker and a host of big wave maniacs, including Englishman Tom Lowe who stopped the world with his horrific pin drop out of a 20 plus footer. But it were the hard charging heroics of the Basque big wave underground - the likes of Naxto Gonzalez and Indar among others - that this film will be remembered for.

Rating: Four Stars

Rastavich, by Sebastian Zanella

Take a TRIP into Aussie style master Dave Rastavich's mind and you'll never be the same again. From getting high on crushed eucalyptus leaves to ruminations on transcendental consciousness (Rasta believes the transition between life and death can be as easy as "changing a pair of clothes), we are left with a bizarre impression of a true eccentric. Artfully shot with superb insights and choice selection of waves from Rasta on a Dick Van Straalen twin-fin, this film will prove itself as a valuable piece of surf history.

Rating: Four Stars

Exhibit 3: Surf, Civilisation and Barbarism

The piece de resistance of the festibal. Curated by the event's director, Sancho Rodriguez, a former creative director at the revered Madrid-based cultural institution, La Fabrica and early nineties Mentawaian explorer, Surf, Civilisation and Barbarism takes us on a confronting journey through the modern history of surfing, with a very poignant undertone: surfing is under threat.

From Jack Mccoy's first ever Minolta shots of an undeveloped Uluwatu, to the nuclear projects threatening J Bay and Fukushima, to the looming development of Punta De Lobos, and the remote untouched point breaks of Africa, the works cast a depressing mist over surfing's ethereal natural imagery. The question that remains is a haunting one: how long can surfing survive if we keep allowing our sacred places to be destroyed?

Humans: Alvaro Abarca and Ramon Navarro

What an honour it was to share air with these two legends of Chilean surfing, Alvaro Abarca and Ramon Navarro. Alvaro Aharco, the original Chileno freak, spent the late 1970s and '80s cruising the coastline by Kombi, pioneering such iconic waves as Punta De Lobos back in '82.

"We did not know what to make of them. They had this long hair, the hippie thing, not working, just surfing," recalls Ramon Navarro of his early encounters with the fro-headed Abarca.

The son of a local fisherman and seaweed collector, Ramon Navarro took on his father's skepticism as a child. "My father was a fisherman, a hard worker and surfing, it was not a job or anything back then. Just something hippies did," he continues.

Today Ramon has become the greatest surfer in Chilean history, as well as a much loved cult-figure in the international big wave underground. Recently he joined forces with Abarca in defence of the Chilean coastline. The nation's growing prosperity leading to more and more coastal development and privatisation, ironically, often in a bid to capitalise on the exploding popularity of surfing. Ground zero is Punta De Lobos, the iconic big wave spot pioneered by Abarca and later mastered by Ramon. Crooked developers have been attempting to circumvent constitutional laws in Chile for years now in a bit to build a monstrous resort on the pristine headland. For surfers and fisherman, like Ramon's father, it is the latest in a long line of coastal regions that have been overrun by corrupt councils and business interests leading to restricted public access to the coastline. A move Ramon says contravenes constitutional law in Chile.

Exhibit 2: Short Films at The Aquarium

© 2023 - Surfilmfestibal

As surfing enters the mainstream have we begun to adopt their attitudes of environmental apathy and spiritual bankruptcy? This was the question put to us by a series of short films at the surreal San Sebastian Aquarium auditorium – a theatre set against a backdrop of monstrous fish and moray eels in a glass tank. The global surfing community has never been bigger or more influential. Yet with several of our favourite playgrounds under threat – often as a result of big business looking to capitalising on the surfing lifestyle – have we forgotten the attachment to the environment and protection of it that once defined us?

Film1: #Save San Miguel

"The role of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible," told Kyle Thierman, producer of the short film, #Save San Miguel, to the audience. His revolution will take the form of a bend back toward's respecting nature's will and economic policies that make it possible to do so. Kyle takes us on a trip to San Miguel, one of the first waves ever surfed on the Baja peninsula (and a world class wave at that). Also the sight of a pre-emptive conservation effort to save the surf break.

Film 2: Hermosa Particula (JapaNing)

The experience of shredding powder in the mountains of Hokkaido and surfing the frigid waves of its coast have afforded cult Japanese figure, Taro Tamoi a unique perspective on the relationship between his life and the environment. "To understand the ocean it is necessary to understand about the mountains," the film explains. This rich cinematic experience, layered with metaphor and visual style, touches on the interrelationship of nature's many elements.

Film 3: Variables

A journey into the deep blue depths with champion Hawaiian spearfisherwoman and environmental advocate, Kimi Werner. Her wholistic approach to hunting and life culminates with a mind-blowing ride on the back of a Great White shark.

Film 4: White Waves

Broken promises and corrupt governance gives us another depressing tale of polluted coastlines. This time in Europe where the collective at White Waves are trying to turn the tide of environmental degradation. "When you feel happy about something you try to keep that environment in tact," explains one character.

Film 5: Mar Sem Fim

The Azores this time, where a marina development is threatening another world class wave. A community with cash to spend is the antagonist. How to balance the needs of the island's surfers with that of the greater community? And who's right - those seeking to preserve the environment for the sake of their (relatively) pure joy, or, those looking to capitalise on it?

Exhibit One: Surf, Architecture and Urbanism

The universal desire to live near the coast and be a part of the surfing lifestyle has brought many challenges to surfing. What will become of us once the wealthy elite have built over our coastlines and displaced our surfing communities? What responsibilities do those with money have to preserve surf culture? What is surf culture anyway? And what will be lost by allowing the wealthy elite to buy into it? What is our, the true surfing community's, role in preserving surf culture and existing coastal communities? These were some of the questions raised by the brilliant opening exhibition of the festival.

Nature might be our bedfellow but it is also the enemy of 'progress' and development.And what better way to explore the topic of coastal development and gentrification then delving into the history of the original European surf city, San Sebastian. This slice of high-culture coastline in the heart of the famously sophisticated Basque country, has experienced tremendous change since the explosion in popularity of coastal living and surf culture. From its roots as a low-income slum-city filled with workers, punks, artists and surfers, it has become an economic boom town. Much has been won and lost in the process, including the beach itself at Zurriola, which has been washed away several times over the years by storms and lacked the sand to replenish it due to the commercial developing of the sand dunes.

The history of broken promises and poorly planned developments along the Basque coast provide a poignant parable to surfing communities the world over: trust no one, be involved, be aware, be ready, and pick a side. Nature might be our bedfellow but it is also the enemy of "progress" and development. Surf culture, and the communities that sustain it, cannot be taken for granted.